Friday, June 19, 2009

Anything you say, Dad

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's Friday lecture to the people of Iran may have been fatherly, but did it set a good example for us dads as we admire our gift ties this Sunday?

After days of opposition rallies following the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Khamenei -- Iran's Supreme Leader -- said further demonstrations will be the cause of "bloodshed and chaos."

Furthermore, Khamenei said, the election was not rigged and the election of Ahmadinejad was both legitimate and "historic."

The Ayatollah is probably right about the bloodshed and chaos part, because he has the national police force to make it happen. As to the legitimate election part, he's probably fibbing. Observers have pointed out that Ahmadinejad was declared the winner by a landslide before the votes were counted, and the huge pre-election demonstrations supporting his opponent, Mir Hussein Moussavi, portended a different result. But we'll never know because the vote count is not open to public inspection. We are left to nurse our suspicions that Iran's Guardian Council wanted the conservative Ahmadinejad to be re-elected by a large margin and lost no time pretending it to be so.

Whatever happened -- or will happen -- in Iran, it will be years before we sort it out. Few of us in the West understand what is happening beneath the surface. For example, how did Moussavi suddenly emerge as the icon of liberal reform after years of toeing the conservative Islamic line? Is his evident change of heart authentic, or is he manipulating his supporters in a cynical quest for power? And what power? It is the Supreme Leader who has most of the power in Iran, including the command of the armed forces and control of the governing philosophy of the country, so how much reform can the president cause?

Parenthetically, the limits to the president's power were evident in February 2007 when U.S. religious leaders, including a member of the National Council of Churches staff, met with Ahmadinejad in Teheran. In addition to observing that the Iranian president was not as nuts as he was portrayed in U.S. media, the church leaders quoted Ahmadinejad that Iran has no plans to build a nuclear weapon "because this is forbidden as contrary to Islam by the Supreme Leader." That's nice to know, unless the Supreme Leader is a fibber.

All of which is to reiterate how difficult it is for outsiders to understand what is going on in Iran. But recent events do prompt us to think about religious issues we do understand, including the arbitrary use of theocratic authority. If we are appalled by Ayatollah Khamanei's claim that his dictatorial powers are God-given, we are overlooking a lot of our own Christian history.

In many of our homes, it begins with our fathers. Although we American Baby Boomers have mitigated it somewhat, most of us can remember when our dads exercised undisputed moral authority over our families, assured that their authority was God-given, too. I remember with genuine affection that my father used to slap my hat off my head when I was crude enough to wear it in the house, but I've noticed that people are shocked when I tell the story, as if he was abusive. I don't think he was abusive, but I still can't wear a hat indoors without thinking about him. (Note: I'm sure Dad would have made an exception for yarmulkes, zucchettos, turbans and taqiyahs.)

And there are thousands who remember being abused by their dads. Many were hit and beaten when they misbehaved, and many still have the scars to prove it. Some dads were, and still are, supported by church authorities when they use their authority. As an Air Force chaplain's assistant in the sixties, I served coffee and tea to airmen and their dependents as they waited to see the chaplain. One day I noticed that a sergeant's wife was agitated as she waited for the door to open. I asked if I could get her anything and she stood up so abruptly that she knocked the chair over. "I'm not going in there," she announced. "He tells me to put out for my husband, and he tells my husband he can take it any time he wants. Your God is a bully."

She may have misinterpreted the chaplain's message, but there's no doubt that some church authorities have been telling men it's okay to beat their wives and children when they deviate from expected paths.

There are other less sinister examples of when religion pushes the faithful to logical precipices. In the late 1960s, my alma mater -- then called Eastern Baptist College -- offered students a religion department that believed in evolution and a biology department that preached creationism. Oddly, no one in the administration appeared to be embarrassed by that. And, as I said, it was the sixties.

But no one at the college claimed to have the authority to force students to believe in either evolution or creationism, because it doesn't take a deep theologian to sense the falicies in that kind of authoritarianism. Whenever any person or any group claims to have power over others because of an arbitrary or nonsensical distinction -- like gender or race or nationality or age -- it leads to trouble.

There are a lot of reasons, of course, why authority is good. It protects the social order and advances the general welfare and prevents rude gentiles from wearing baseball caps inside.

And there are a lot of reasons why ecclesiastical and theological authority is good because it maintains tradition and protects faith. And it may well be that Ayatollah Khamenei, though a poor counter and fibber, has the best interests of his nation and his people at heart.

But all the same, arbitrary claims to power never last forever. And they always lead to trouble.

I'm sure my Dad knew that.

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